Sunday, August 31, 2008


so, i'm illiterate. after my co-teacher left, i decided (after putzing around my place, putting things away, etc) to go walk around and see what is in my neighborhood. i did this in part because i knew i had things to do today (i wanted to go out with some of my co-teachers, now that they can consciously be edited, but the last train back would only give me about two hours).

wandering around in a city where you don't know where anything is fun. wandering a city wherein you don't speak the language, is disorienting. and fun.

when i was walking to and from the subway with my co-teacher i would look in windows and the like to see what was the business inside. (ross, i guy i trained with, and i joked that for the first couple of weeks shop keepers will look up and see a bunch of white faces pressed against the glass trying to peak inside.) i remembered seeing a bar or two, and, well, since i can smoke in them, why not*? also, i was kinda hungry for a snack, and since one gets charged by how much waste they produce, why not go to a bar? korean law, or at least korean custom, dictates that when you drink in a bar they must provide you with snacks. often quite good food.

i went down a street where i remember seeing some bars and then see a few beer signs in a window. i walk in, but it is all tables, no bar, and, well, i didn't want to do that. so i went two doors down and there was a bar. i walk in, and the bartender gets up from a group of friends and pulls out the stool for me. she asks me (i assume) what i want to drink. 'whiskey'. they don't has whiskey, so i get a cass. (cass, hite, and ob seem to be the beers here. hite is shite, ob is like coors light. cass is okay.) she pours me a draft and makes a snack plate of sunflower feeds, peanuts, popcorn, and spicky rice rings. also, a few grapes and two slices of american cheese. before she sits down she holds up this bottle, that i thought was whiskey from the get go, and makes the shot motion. fuck it, why not. she pours two shots. i assumed this was going to be my first drink with a korean. nope, both for me.

at this point i was a smidge nervous as i only had about 25000 on me, and while at the convenience stores, etc, that i have been to a beer tops out at around 3500, i was now in the capital city and drank two shots of whiskey(?). but when all this went down i put my money on the bar, to kind of let her know.

before rejoining her friends, she changed from her shorts into a skirt, but she was short enough the bar blocked everything, so i thought that it was odd, but not unreasonable for this to occur. what the hell do i know? i'm eating processed cheese with whiskey and grapes.

the bar isn't at all crowded. just me, korean tv (i was given the remote), the table of 4 when i walked in (the bartender, another girl, an older guy and son(?)). at the table behind them is a couple. in the back room there is a guy eating some bbq. on her way back to the table of four, the bartender stopped in the backroom and talked to the guy for a minute, then rejoined her table.

i am just taking it all in with my processed cheese and popcorn.

the bartender went outside once to say hello to a guy in the street, he gave her a big grin. i am beginning to get what i now think is reasonably suspicious about this place, then suddenly the table of four leaves, but only the guys go. the girls remain.

at this point i have drank both shots, and am about to finish my beer (for the two shots and the beer was 5000, about $5) but think the entire situation is so hysterical that i order another beer. the couple in the middle section of the place gets up, and he sits next to me at the bar. he and my 'bartender' chat for a few minutes, out of the corner of my eye, i know i am the subject for at least a few sentences.

the younger girl from the table of four comes behind the bar and goes through a few different shirts and heads off to change. when she comes back out, she heads to the back room where the guy is still eating bbq.

another man walks in, looks at me and kinda smirks. he and the bartender are clearly talking about me, as they speak they both occasionally look right at me. i imagine the conversation went something like this:
'does he speak korean?'
'what's he doing in here, eating cheese?'
'has he tried to set anything up?'
'what a moron'
'i know, but at least i can over-charge him for drinks'

i'm feeling uncomfortable, no longer just amused, as this man is standing pretty close, and i know they are talking about me. i'm debating if i should try and figure out how to enter this conversation while i am finishing my beer. it could end up being a rather interesting talk, putting these two people in a position wherein they have to pretend that this bar is not what i clearly know it is.

i finish my beer and take out my money and think about what to do next when the back room door shuts and the light goes out. i pay for my drink and go home, stopping off at the convenience store right outside my building to have one more beer with billy, who is quite nice, but can't really speak english.

*my cigarette consumption since being in korea is incredible, to be fair, they are only 2.50 US per pack. i seem to have settled on CIGAR NO.5. i was smoking NO.6 for a while, but they are too strong i think, for my current rate of consumption. every package of Bohem's CIGAR says pour homme.


yesterday i was driven into seoul, with the other native english teachers, by district, to be picked up by one of our korean co-teachers. she (miss baek, or baek-seon-sang-nim*) was very kind. shy. nervous to meet me. in fact how nervous she was made it easier for me.

[in my extremely limited exposure, korean's are very nervous about making a mistake and looking foolish. this, clearly, isn't just a korean characteristic, but given that english is not their native language, given that it is mine, and i am to share it with students, it seems all the more reasonable that they would be doubly cautious around 'the english expert'.]

first we went to the school,
'are you married?'
figured it was best to leave it there.
'you are outgoing person?' (inflection helped)
'yes i am'
'good for teacher'

the schools (two, mine and when i went to see a 'demo' lesson) seem to share some common characteristics. they don't feel as coldly institutional, even tho they are. they money isn't put into the walls and floors so much. it isn't decrepit, or even bad, but paint is uneven, evidence of posters past, etc abounds. for all that, every classroom has some serious technology (except for air conditioning more often than not). a giant screen, some classrooms have smart boards (giant screens you can write on with your finger), but not mine. in fact, i don't have a classroom. i roam to my classes. but this post is getting bogged down in details that would be best saved for another post. i need to learn to keep things straight-forward and simple.

from class we went to my apartment. she warned me that it was very tiny, and while not big, i have certainly seen smaller efficiencies. essentially, it is what some of my friends live in or have lived in in manhattan. it had more things in it than i suspected. again, apartment details shall be saved for another time.

'i think you change into different clothes, and we go out.'

she stepped out into the hallway, i was able to get out of my shirt, tie, etc, and back into wandering clothes. we talked about how long it would most likely take me to walk to work (she estimates 30 minutes, i plan on testing this out later today).
'you have umbrella? it should rain'
'no i didn't pack one'
'oh ohhhh'
'do you like korean food?'
'do you like to eat korean or western food?'
'either one is fine with me, thank you'
she asked someone on the street something, then she said, 'do you know hyundai?'
'we should go to their department store, it is about a half of an hour away'

i followed her down the street, weaving our way through people--it is okay, if there is very little room, to make some body-contact in order to scoot by. there were two old(er) men in front of us for a while, tho, that didn't offer a way through. finally we squeezed by.

the subway was amusing, it was like going out with my mom. she is trying to figure out how to get a ticket, but since there wasn't anyone in the booth, had to take on the machine.

she only had a 10000 on her, and the machine that gives individual tickets seems to only take 1000 bills. she is talking to two school girls (they have class for half-days twice a month on saturdays), and one of them agrees to get her change from the newspaper stand just past the turn-style. i believe the girl made a joke about not returning with her money as she said something mischievous and then the three of them laughed. she came back with her change, reaching over the turn-style. her friend then joined her and she loudly said, 'bye'
'bye, thank you'
the two girls then laughed and ran away.

baek-song-sang-nim then was trying to figure out what the order of operations was to get the tickets.
'i think you put the money in first'
'oh...oh, you are right! you have been to seoul before!'
we get down to the platform, and stand next to the two school girls, who are looking at my like an exhibit. while on the subway, she stands literally in front of this younger guy, younger than me i believe, who is texting and is looking right at him. he should, be all rights, give up his seat, but he pretends to ignore her. i lightly giggle.
'why you laugh?'
'um, just taking it all in i guess'

the hyundai department store has the most incredible food court i have ever seen. it is all fast food, but it is all made to order, so you wait a few minutes, but for a freshly made, simple, dish. we get to where she thought was best (she knows that i am a 'vegetarian' but will eat fish.)
'oh, menu is all koren, no english. they have tuna bi bim bop?'
'that's sounds great, kum-sa-ham-ni-da'
finally, i remembered to say 'thank you' in korean. i keep wanting to say it, but it doesn't work out as my head goes straight to english.

we sit and we wait. people look at us and me. literally, like two separate operations. there are electronic boards throughout that put the ticket number up so you know when your order is ready. i see our number (the ticket is between us on the table).
'i think that is our number?'
'i have not seen it up on board yet' but she turns and looks at the board i am looking at 'oh, my board must be broken, you have been here before!' she smiles.

the food was good, i learned how to eat the pickled turnips (which i enjoy, thin slices of daikon radish i believe, but she said turnip with some struggle and trepidation, and, well...). she also added, 'they are japanese'. i wasn't gonna touch that.

we talk about my family, how long she has been teaching, my goals, and what how i should address her in front of the class. (misses baek for those who are curious). i also learn that nam june paik, in korean, is actually baek. like her. 'he must be relative' we laugh.

on the way from the food court she asks what else i need. i'm not sure what it is i can ask for. i need, for example, a watch too, but how far do i take this welcome gift? i politely mentioned the apartment had more in it than i was suspecting, so i am all set for the moment.

we go to the umbrella section of the store (it seems comparable in size to a sack's 5th avenue, or any other gigantic nyc department store). we are looking at umbrellas, she kind of displays a few to me.
'you like this one, this one, this one?'
one of the umbrellas is in a polka-dot zip up container, and i assume it expands up when you open it. i ask her if that is the case.
'yes, three levels'
so i opt for the level three umbrella. a sales associate takes it out of my hands, and then the transaction occurs. she hands me the umbrella.
'this is my gift to welc--'
the sales associate comes by and hands her her receipt.
'this is my gift to welcome you to korea'
she then takes the umbrella out of my hands. and puts it in her purse.
'i carry it'

on the escalator down i tell her how hard it is for me to remember to go into korean to thank anyone, and then i tell her that this is great, because i can only imagine how my students must feel. (i have been thinking about how i learned foreign language quite a bit. what problems i had, why i didn't do better at it.)

when we are heading back to the subway, she makes the wrong turn.
'um, i think we want to head towards gimpo/banghwa'
'ha ha, you are right. you have been here before! how do you know?'
'i'm trying to be very alert, so i don't get lost'
'good job'

we walk back to my apartment, i ask her to write my address in korean, just in case i need to take a taxi at some point. she agrees this is a good idea. she begins to leave.
'um, sorry, but can i have my umbrella? i plan on walking around, and it may rain'

as i type this, i'm not sure if i made a mistake in asking for it. did she forget, or was it part of something bigger? i know most gifts are wrapped. oh well. at dinner i told her i know some customs, but i am certain to make some mistakes and to please be patient. after all, she was the one who said i will need it for my walk to school on monday as it will rain.

* i, technically, am thurston-seon-sang-nim (thurston teacher)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

'snapshots, architecture'

couple a randoms and the korean national museum

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

so far so good. i'm currently outside of the city of seoul, and slightly outside of another city, but i don't know which. but even this small city, when i, or a few of us, walk in has the neon and the lights i am looking for.

there is a small gallery just down the hill from the Hyundai Learning Center which 200 or so of my newest and closest friends (some act like how i remember it at freshman orientation, thinking we will all always hang out, etc, for the next year, even when our assignments have us on opposite sides of the city) are all 'training' at. i believe the ' ' convey enough information. this gallery is in an alley. not expecting much, i headed over into the sculpture yard (3 or 4 pieces), and the man who was there came out to great me and waved me in. i get nervous in these situations--i dont want to be a monolith, tho i know i will be numerous times over the next year (ambassador one of the program organizers keeps saying). he was very kind, and plugged everything in and lo and behold, the first floor was all nam june paik and shigeko kubota. to see that even in this small out of the way area they have numerous paik photographs and fluxus prints, and then kubota's installation of 'nude descending a staircase' was just great. on the 2nd floor there were more recent korean works, that all seem to lead back to paik's aesthetic, or at least bear the mark. i particularly enjoyed a piece that was basically a giant mirror, circular, that had a very loose ying yang layout with screen printed faces starting in the top mid point and just drifted down to the lower right.

all of the officials, western and korean, who have spoken all say 'korea'. if they aren't going to mention it, i won't either.

last night everyone seemed to hit a wall, so i am up early and rested, still tired and smoking too many cigarettes, like everyone else.